While the world is focused on President Trump’s shifting of military assets out of Syria, the US military is shifting its thinking from a Middle Eastern war to one where they confront “major military powers.” This new national defense strategy is one reason why there is a sudden focus on countering new military technology like hypersonic missiles from Russia and China.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, US military thought has focused on small scale conflicts, not the major wars. As a result, the US military evolved away from a major land army and into one that could deploy quickly to small theaters of operations. The focus moved away from the weapons of conventional war like tanks and towards lighter vehicles like Strykers that could be quickly deployed on transport aircraft, and highly trained Special Forces that could carry out low profile operations in places like Syria.
Suddenly parts of the military like main battle tanks, which were forgotten in the post 9-11 era, are back in vogue. Amphibious vehicles for “island hopping” operations like those carried out in WWII are being used in training. Other battlefield weapons like long range rocket assisted artillery are being pushed. And, with the INF treaty constraints out of the way, the US Army is testing a new medium-range conventional missile with a range of from 500 to 5,500 kilometers.
While both Russia and China are mentioned, much of the thinking is directed towards China and the South China Sea. The US military is working more closely with allies in the region and US tactical doctrine is gearing up for conflict in that theater of operations.
Last month, the US Marine Corps held exercises on the Japanese islet of Tore Shima to practice landings on “hostile” shores and carry out the seizure of landing strips – a military exercise designed to show the ability of the US military to invade a disputed island like those in the South China Sea.
The Pentagon said, “This type of raid gives the commanders in the Indo-Pacific region the ability to project power and conduct expeditionary operations in a potentially contested littoral environment.” The impetus came directly from the Secretary of Defense according to Military.com.
Although the US Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force are the usual forces for projecting power, this new doctrine applies to all the services. The Secretary of the Army speaks about changing the “geometry within Southeast Asia.”
“If we can get the appropriate partnerships, expeditionary basing rights with partners in the region, we can change the geometry,” he said.
As proof of the new focus, the major Army exercise in the Indo-Pacific Theater in 2020 will focus on the South China Sea scenario. It will focus on rapid deployment from the continental United States to the Pacific. The plan is to bring over a division headquarters and several brigades.
In order to make the objective clear, General Robert Brown said, “We won’t go to Korea. We will go to a South China Sea scenario where we will be around the South China Sea. Brown said forces will be in the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei.
This week US forces held joint training with one of those allies that it is relying upon for bases in case of a conflict; Brunei. The exercises simulated the securing of a beachhead and conducting jungle warfare. The 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) participated along with ships of the US and Brunei navies.
The US Air Force, which has been carrying over flights of the South China Sea, is tailoring its training for a potential outbreak of hostilities with China. American F-35s are being transferred to a Nevada flight training facility to mimic Chinese J-20 fighter aircraft. Like the legendary “Top Gun” School, this will give US pilots practice in combating Chinese aircraft and countering Chinese combat tactics.
However, if conflict breaks out in the South China Sea, it will be the US Navy and Marines that will have the hardest task – invading and holding Chinese islands in the area.
Although the US Navy and Marines have a joint history – carrying out amphibious operations like those in WWII – their doctrine has drifted apart in the last few decades as Marines have been deployed on land much like the US Army. Even when they operate with the Navy, it is frequently for tasks such as intercepting ships in the Arabian Gulf and inspecting them.
That is okay in environments like the Middle East, but it will not work with a major power like Russia or China. Commandant of the Marine Corps, General David Berger outlined a new Marine doctrine, where the USMC will be able to operate against major powers in conjunction with the US Navy.
Captain Lance Lesher, commodore of Amphibious Squadron 8 told the US Naval Institute last week, “We’ve been anchored kind of to the Arabian Gulf for quite some time. Now, and with great power competition, the emphasis is that we are not limited to one specific area…What I’m getting from my bosses consistently is, we are worldwide deployable, and we need to do all those missions.”
This new type of doctrine was seen in an exercise of the USS Bataan Amphibious Ready Group and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit last week. It integrates the sailors and marines more like they were in previous decades like the Cold War era. Although they didn’t go into the specifics of the exercise, they touched on fighting in the Pacific in WWII, specifically Guadalcanal – a strong implication that the US is developing plans and capabilities to be able to invade and take the artificial islands China has built in the South China Sea.
One of the problems with this new doctrine is that conventional war with a major power like China requires larger numbers of soldiers, sailors, and marines.
The US military is much smaller than it was just a few years ago. The American Army, which was once easy to enlist in during the Cold War, has become one of the most selective employers. Today, it is a highly professional force with a large Special Forces contingent and technical specialty.
About 75% of American youth are unqualified to be in the US military due to weight, health, educational deficiencies, or drug usage.
Unfortunately, major wars with major powers require larger militaries. Once the US military could rely upon a small professional military with the skills to operate high tech equipment. However, the once vaunted technological edge that the American military had over its opponents has been squandered. Russia and China have caught up with US technology and even surpassed it in some fields.
This manpower shortage has shown up in the new push to have sailors and marines work more closely together. The 26th MEU is training as firefighters in order to support Navy damage control teams onboard ships. In the past, naval personnel were able to fill all the damage control teams. However, as enlistments fail to meet quotas, the marines onboard are being used to fill the manpower holes.
Of course, keeping a ship afloat is also in the marines’ interest too.
The new national defense directive must be more than new tactical doctrine. It will require new and refurbished equipment and more manpower. During the Obama years, the focus was on increased numbers of highly trained Special Forces and light, inexpensive equipment.
But a few thousand Special Forces can’t compete with hundreds of thousands of Russian or Chinese troops. And, the mine resistant vehicles and Strykers in Afghanistan and Iran can’t even stop the bullets of Russian and Chinese heavy machine guns, much less their tanks.
The military will use “patches” in the short term. Expect “legacy” forces like the American main battle tank, the M-1 Abrams, to be refurbished and redeployed. Long range artillery and missiles will help keep enemy units at “arm’s length.”
Trump’s decision to redeploy US forces reflects a change in American defense strategy. Although some forces are being deployed to places like Saudi Arabia, these forces are not designed for combat in a South China Sea scenario.
The new focus is the South China Sea. While the Middle East is still in the minds of the American military, those forces that can make a difference will be looking to East Asia in the future.